Despite the late hour, Sidrael was too lonely to sleep. There was nobody left in the castle for her to talk to.
Most of all, she missed her twin sister. Eriel was in Cadho Badho, studying at the Academy of Magic. While Cadho Badho wasn't really that far away – it was even linked to the teleportation network, although such an abrupt mode of transport made her feel queasy and she was always afraid one of the wizards might accidentally sneeze and teleport her through a tree – she was unused to even venturing outside the Castle gates into Valenadine Town. Besides, there was no reason to visit Eriel. She would only disturb her sister's vital training, possibly in the middle of a complex and potentially lethal incantation. From the letters that Eriel sent her almost every day, she knew that her sister was enjoying her life as an apprentice sorceress. The Headmaster of the Academy told her that she was a truly gifted student with a voracious appetite for learning and an aptitude for magic far in excess of anything that could be explained by her royal blood. Everyone knew that the Valendia royal family were tied to the land and its magic but the amount of mystical energy that Eriel could channel was almost frightening.
Despite loving to learn new spells, she refused to be alone in the library, especially not at night. She did not trust the books. She heard them moving on the shelves, the rustling of pages and the thump of books moving when her back was turned. They were never in the same place twice when she watched them. All spellbooks were slightly alive, she told her sister, but you could never be too careful. Their shadows in the flickering candlelight seemed a little too distorted, sometimes giving them the semblance of sharp fangs. Once she had almost destroyed a valuable spellbook when it was knocked off its podium by a strong gust of wind as another student was opening the door, and she assumed it was attacking her.
What scared her more than the books was the intensity of the exhiliration she experienced when she was at the climax of a powerful spell, feeling reality ripple seamlessly beneath her fingertips as she diverted it to her will, channelling every single mote of energy she could possibly harness until she felt as though she was about to be immolated by her own mystical aura, her consciousness in another plane of endless light and music and potential. She could lose herself in her magic and never return and she would be perfectly happy. Occasionally, her hair levitated when she was in the middle of a spell like that. The other students made fun of her and she had a ridiculous nickname based on the phenomenon. This wasn't what worried her.
Sidrael sent her sister a letter in reply every day. She reassured Eriel and reminded her of their bond, that wherever she was, her sister was always watching over her in spirit, and that Eriel's pain was her pain. She told her sister that she trusted her to return to Valenadine safely. She hoped it would be enough.
Gradriel was in the Court Wizard Justinai's office learning about statecraft and practicing her handwriting. Sidrael could have walked down the corridor and knocked on the door any time and Gradriel would have been happy to let her in. However, she didn't want to disturb their younger sister now that she had finally relented and sat down to do some studying instead of trying to escape out of the window. Gradriel was very easily distracted. Whenever she became distracted, she tended to escape from the castle and go out slaying dragons. Dragons were becoming an endangered species, what with all the slaying, so Sidrael was trying to encourage her sister to build a sanctuary for them in the mountains of Dorangora and only cull them if they ventured too close to the town or actively attacked anyone.
Sidrael was usually given Gradriel's attempts at handwriting to critique. The script was improving rapidly – still childish and hesitant but with the promise to become flowing and elegant with practice. She was proud of her sister for persevering for this long. Gradriel asked Sidrael to help her with her studies a lot. While she wasn't bold and adventurous, Sidrael knew a lot more about the more mundane duties of a Princess than either of her siblings. She could pen a letter, dress correctly for a formal invitation to dinner, address all sorts of petitions in court and talk to diplomats from all of Valendia's neighbouring countries in their own languages. Gradriel had always escaped from their lessons as a child, even though she was the one actually inheriting the Crown. She said it was irresponsible to sit in a chair all day acting like some glorified bureaucrat when there were so many immanent threats to the Kingdom that wouldn't go away until she went and dealt with them directly – with a sword, not with a royal edict!
At the time, it had turned out she was right. In fact, she had saved the entire world from the incursion of the Demon Hosts by slaying their God of Darkness, Larva. She was already a Queen who would be remembered in legends for all of time, a Queen recognised and beloved by all of her people. However, the great quest was over. Valendia wasn't going to disappear like a solved problem, or the world of a closed storybook. Peace, no matter how long it may or may not last, meant a return to everyday life, the routine maintenance of a Kingdom that needed a lot of repairs since it had been invaded by the fiends of the Abyss. Gradriel would need to learn how to survive in that world as fast as she had learned to use her sword.
Gradriel didn't wear her crown unless she absolutely had to. She didn't feel that she deserved it quite yet. Not until she was a proper Queen, as her mother had been. Queen Eltharan had been able to live in both worlds, survive and stand victorious on a battlefield and in a royal court. Gradriel had always been motivated most of all by living up to her mother's standards. When she was forced to wear her crown, she would not be left alone with it, for the same reason that Eriel would not be left alone with a spellbook. She kept tight security in her throne room, insisting on Jestonai and Kwein, the Captain of the Royal Guard, standing close enough to her to respond in an emergency. It wasn't because of potential assassins. Gradriel could deal with assassins.
Sidrael was the only one left alone. Her sisters had their own lives, their own callings and important duties. One day, Gradriel wouldn't need her older sister's guidance and Eriel would be too far away or too busy to send letters, doing whatever it is fully fledged sorceresses do. Only Sidrael didn't really have her own role to play in the new chapter of Valendia's history.
Night had fallen outside her window. She placed her bookmark in her diary and closed it again, then extinguished the candle flame and pulled her bedsheets around her, trying to lull herself into something resembling sleep.
She dreamt of him. She had been dreaming of him a lot, lately.
She remembered the touch of his hand against hers. Her hand was tiny and fragile in comparison to his, yet his touch was as gentle as his eyes. His hand was warmer than a human's, yet not uncomfortably so, his skin rough and leathery, and she could trace the scars of battle and the places where his shackles had chafed against his wrists. There had been so many chains, everywhere, each link as large as herself. They wound throughout the tower in which he was confined, rooted deep in the earth, saturated with eldritch warding sigils, the only prison that could contain a General of Hell, and yet the look in his eyes as he told her the story of his missing heart had been the same as any man who had been imprisoned for most of his life. She remembered the way he reassured her as they went over the words of his summoning ritual. He did not treat her as his captive, even though she had been abducted by Skulg to assist in his release. Her own imprisonment was nothing compared to his. It was brief, and she could buy her freedom without doing anything that was really wrong.
It was strangely comforting to dream of him. She wondered if it was because her influence on Volgrod, which had caused him to betray his former master and gave Gradriel a chance of victory against Larva, had been the only crucial role she played in the quest. She felt partly guilty for Volgrod's death. Even knowing that he could not hope to defeat his former master, Volgrod had flung himself at Larva, was mortally wounded in the battle and disappeared back into the demonic realm with the rest of his kind. He had done so in her name, not Gradriel's, even though it had been Gradriel's battle. Maybe a part of her just wanted Volgrod to still be alive, if only in a dream.
That night, like the night before, his voice sounded slightly closer and less faint as he called her name over and over again.
The next morning, she woke up before Gradriel or even Jestonai, although most of the guards had begun their patrol of the castle. She put on her hooded travelling cloak and packed her diary, her letters and a couple of other books into her bag. Most of the guards were keeping an eye on Gradriel, not her. She never sneaked out of the castle. The one guard who did question her, she bribed using some of the money she had saved up for an emergency. Then she set off down the path from Valenadine Town to Leeland.
It was a long walk and she was soon exhausted. She was a little worried she was going the wrong way. She wondered what exactly she was doing on an adventure. She wasn't bold and intrepid. She didn't know how to wield a sword or cast magic. She didn't really need to. Most of the monsters that had plagued Valendia disappeared or turned into ordinary animals and plants when Larva was defeated.
Once she reached Leeland, she began asking around for a ship. It took her a long time to find a sailor who would take her to Earth On Truse Tera, even though the only gate to the Netherworld was now permanently sealed and the tower collapsed. It helped that she still had a lot of money left over, and that Portgus recognised her and put in a good word for her.
The ship set sail the next morning.